FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — My husband and I bought a new home last fall — a 1910 Colonial Revival on the edge of this central Minnesota town of 14,000 people. Down the hill from our place is downtown, which includes the library and a medical clinic. Go a quarter-mile in the opposite direction, and the houses end. You’re surrounded by wide-open prairie, and beyond that is Interstate 94, which gets you to the Twin Cities in about three hours.
We’re still unpacking boxes as we get ready for our first baby, due in late March. A few weeks ago, searching for ideas for what to name our son, I looked through a family genealogy book. The last 30 pages are a transcription of my great-great-great grandfather Walter’s diary from 1883 to 1907. He came to Minnesota via Canada and England and lived with his wife, Eleanor, and their nine children on a homestead in Clay County, about 40 miles north of where I live now.
I read excerpts from his diary out loud to my husband, and we soaked in the rhythm of his life:
Thurs. June 1, finished planting onion seed, planted potatoes. Went to J. Lamb’s dance. Fri. 2, rain. Finished planting potatoes. Father went to Sabin. Sat. 3. took cattle to herd. Helped Chas. Lamb haul manure. Sun. 4, went over to church. All McEvers S.S. were there. Mon. 5, cleaned out stable. Ploughed for beans and corn. Tues. 6, went to mill. Wed. 7, father called. I planted beets around house. Sat. 10, ploughed for turnips.
It was a humble sort of poetry, a reference book for the land he chose to commit himself to. He was a farmer, and he helped establish the area’s first Presbyterian church. And yet it’s strange to know every detail of what he planted, but not what he hoped or feared for his family or his community.
The Interstate splits the original homestead, so I drive through that farmland often. I catch myself romanticizing my family’s “legacy,” feeling both pride for what they built and regret that the land that defines my family was stolen from the Dakota people.
I feel conflicted about my role here. Rural places like this one are facing countless questions about the economy, about identity and about the environment. It’s hard to know what we need to be stewards of and sustain, and what we need to let go or confront, to build a strong future.
The author outside her home in Fergus Falls, Minn.
In a 2009 commencement address at Northern Kentucky University, Mr. Berry encouraged students to consider whether they might be better and more responsible citizens if they embraced the concept of homecoming rather than the desire for upward mobility, which lures them to places to which they have little connection, to participate in a destructive and extractive economy.
He even offered a glimpse of what an academic curriculum in “homecoming” might look like, the questions it might address, if we took the idea seriously: “What has happened here?” he asks. “What should have happened here? What is here now? What is left of the original natural endowment of this place?” Mr. Berry offered a vision of “a vital, wakeful society of local communities elegantly adapted to local ecosystem,” if more of us were committed to these questions of place.
Over the last eight years, I have found that my homecoming story is not unique. In Minnesota, demographers noticed several years ago a modest but persistent trend of people in their 30s and 40s taking up residence in small communities, a counterweight to the high school graduates moving away. The Pew Research Center found that, nationwide, while rural areas are home to a much smaller part of the American population than they once were, about half of rural counties, especially the ones that are not economically dependent on farming, are gaining people.
And that growth reflects patterns we should examine more closely: an influx of international immigrants, and people moving in from cities. Simply panicking about the “death” of rural America gives those of us who care about and live in these places very little to learn or build on. Is there another way to think about it?
In 2000, I left my hometown of 450 people in rural Minnesota to attend Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. I spent a decade in that city, changing neighborhoods and nonprofit arts jobs every few years. Portland shaped a lot of who I am now, but my life there somehow lacked meaning. My work felt trivial and temporary. These feelings were magnified every time my rent increased and I found myself deeper in debt, or whenever there was a crisis or celebration at home, and I spent hundreds of dollars for a flight back to Minnesota.
In graduate school, I thought seriously about what sustainability means, and I realized that it starts with individuals and their relationship to place. I was lucky to have a place with strong roots that I could protect and be protected by, in a time where the world felt more and more uncertain.
And so, one drizzly early summer morning, after 11 years away from Minnesota, I loaded up a van with my belongings and my cat, said goodbye to my friends and colleagues, and drove 1,500 miles from Portland to Fergus Falls, my grandmother’s hometown.
I was a little naïve, but I also felt gleefully rebellious. My move felt like a sort of protest against the idea that creative young people need to live in coastal cities. I pictured myself taking dreamy walks on the prairie, or cozied up in cafes during blizzards, writing. I thought I would learn gardening and canning, or how to clean freshly caught fish.
The former Fergus Falls State Hospital, which the author is working to preserve, opened in 1890 and was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
I didn’t foresee the urgency of the issues I would find myself immersed in as part of my job at a nonprofit arts and community development group. Soon after I arrived, I met a group of preservationists who were looking for creative ways to redevelop an abandoned, historic mental hospital. It had been close to demolition for years, and the community was deeply divided over its fate.
More recently, the closing of big box stores like Target and Herberger’s seemed to damage our collective self-esteem. Locally owned businesses were still starting up — a pizza place and brewery, an organic ice cream shop, artist studios — but I would open the paper to read letters to the editor lamenting that our town is dying, that there’s nothing to do here, and worst of all, that it’s all our fault.
I’ve also spent much of my energy trying to navigate the entrenched cronyism in local decision making. People who are not part of the “old guard” are frequently dismissed. Even more than finding practical solutions to economic challenges, Fergus Falls faces a deeper question of participation, and how to dismantle the powerful forces that have had their way too easily in small towns for too long.
And yet I feel a fierce defensiveness for this place. Particularly since the 2016 election, I hear the national media — or even my friends back in Portland — dismiss my rural colleagues, family and neighbors as out of touch, hateful, fearful of immigrants, and doomed to a life of boredom and poverty. But they don’t know my friend Sarah Calhoun, who started a women’s clothing company and a music festival near White Sulphur Springs, Mont. They’ve never been to the country church in Underwood, a few miles east of Fergus Falls, whose congregants are starting conversations about race, gender equity, climate change and more. And they haven’t read the work of Nikiko Masumoto, an artist who is rethinking food systems while working alongside her family on their organic peach farm in rural California.
This is the rural life that I know exists all over the country: It can be stimulating and rewarding, a place for bold creativity. I am more involved in politics, and more outspoken about social and racial justice, economic development and feminism than I ever was in Portland. And incidentally, I have not had much time to garden, go fishing, or learn how to can food.
I worry about the anthropological attention to rural America. It has ranged from exaggerated or even fake “Trump country” exposés, to well-intentioned but out-of-touch efforts to mend the “urban-rural divide,” to patronizing television contests in which viewers vote for the “best small town” in their state.
I’m ready for a new kind of attention, one directed somewhere between bleak landscapes of ignorance and bigotry, and Pollyanna illusions of the pastoral life. This is where most rural Americans actually live and where some of the most important work is being done.
Maybe a different conversation can start with us, the homecomers. We are bridge builders, skilled at identifying the opportunities for “local adaptation” that Mr. Berry hopes for, able to act as translators across ideological divisions. A recent Gallup poll found that although most Americans live in cities, if given a choice, they would prefer to live in rural areas. What’s stopping them?
There are ways to connect people that could help us understand our interdependence. This could take many forms, from gap years for college students to do projects in their rural hometowns, to incentives that encourage people to move home and start businesses. In Fergus Falls, the organization I work for recently started a homecoming residency for artists who want to return to their home region temporarily.
What would we learn if we studied the impact of homecomers across the country? Could they be the leaders that ease some of the resentment that is dividing our country? Both urban and rural people share a future far beyond whom we elect as leaders. That shared future is what drives us to live meaningful lives, and what will make us the best stewards of the earth that we can be, no matter where we choose to live.
Michele Anderson is the rural program director for Springboard for the Arts, an economic and community development organization for artists in Minnesota.